From 1925 to 1928, jazz artist Louis Armstrong and his band made a set of recordings now considered some of the most revolutionary and influential recordings in American music.
The Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, as they’re called, served as the catalyst that pushed the focus of jazz music from the ensemble to soloist.
“These recordings redefined jazz and placed it on a new course, one more revolutionary and far-reaching than any subsequent upheavals in the music’s history,” says BYU music professor Brian Harker. “Yet this was a quiet revolution whose full implications went undetected for a long time, even within the black community.”
In a new book published by Oxford University Press, , Harker brings to light just how Armstrong’s early work, now considered seminal, was viewed by musicians and audiences at the time of its release.
The answer, according to Harker, is that the recordings, though greatly admired by other musicians, were not seen as anything revolutionary. And they certainly weren’t viewed as the groundbreaking tracks musicians and historians see them as now.
In fact, Harker points out that Armstrong himself thought the recordings only represented “tiny blips on the crowded screen of his 1920s career.”
“No I don’t try to make an art of my music,” Armstrong once said. “Music is a day’s work and we all ought to do a day’s work. That buys the pork chops.”
Adds Harker: “Even black newspapers covered Armstrong as just one name among many, and descriptions of his playing, while laudatory, bear little resemblance to those of today. Today, Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings mark the first revolution in the history of a music riven by upheaval.”
Armstrong eventually became a legend, but didn’t reach the apex of his popularity until the 1950s and 1960s, when he showed up alongside Bing Crosby and starred in major films such as “Hello, Dolly” with Barbra Streisand.
The book pays special attention to seven of Armstrong’s most popular recordings of the time and shows how they reflect the novelty, story-telling and versatility of vaudeville – the variety entertainment shows popular in the 1920s.
The book also details Armstrong’s ability to extend solos to unheard of lengths while also maintaining coherence and organization – a technique now considered innovative.
“Harker has spent more than a decade immersed in Armstrong's work and it shows,” said fellow author Jeffrey Magee. “He has absorbed the music, the period, and commentary about it to do something for scholarship that he claims Armstrong did for the music: consolidate what is known and weave it into something that sounds new and fresh.”
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